Open Borders note: Additional links have been added to the piece to facilitate reader exploration
Recently, I was invited to write a piece on open borders for the Russian online magazine Apparat. It was published as “7 причин, почему мир должен отказаться от государственных границ”, or something like, “Seven reasons why the world should abolish state borders.” The Spanish-edition translation is here. To what extent the Russian expresses a sentiment I’d endorse is hard to say, since, unlike some, I don’t want to abolish borders, but to allow people to migrate across them. (Jurisdictional frontiers between states are fine.) I wrote the article in an interview format, after which it went through the usual editorial process. I saw and approved a Russian-language draft, but what actually got published was different again.
The below is a kind of back-translation from the Russian. I’ve tried to strike a balance between accurately reflecting the meaning of the Russian text and accurately reflecting my own views, which were sometimes a bit obscured, not so much in translation, as in the editorial process. Sometimes I substituted back in passages from the original English version.
To open the borders of states to all who wish to cross them is one of the most radical and unpopular ideas all over the world. However, not long ago in the USA, there appeared a movement among economists and scholars by the name “Open Borders.” Activists in this movement believe, that to prohibit people from moving to any country is not only immoral, but also greatly inefficient: the elimination of borders will substantially improve the world economy. Members of Open Borders assiduously defend their point of view in scholarly publications, interviews, and on their blog. Apparat asked one of them, the writer and economics professor Nathan Smith of Fresno Pacific University, why it’s a good idea to open the world’s borders.
(extracts from my e-mail interview)
- Open borders would improve the welfare of mankind
Open borders are estimated to be able to double world GDP. To see why, it’s first necessary to review economists’ efforts over the years to explain why some countries are so rich, and others are not. In part, this depends on how developed the social and political institutions of a country are. So when people move to places with more developed institutions, their productivity increases. It’s a lot easier to open a business in the USA, than in Afghanistan.
Second, open borders would raise the productivity of many industries [even in the West] by allowing greater specialization. American professors often mow their own lawns, and that may serve as a symbol of the inefficiency of migration control. Very few have the capability to research physics or philosophy, while almost anyone can mow a lawn. It would be more efficient, if professors hired others to mow lawns and focused on physics and philosophy. Billions of people worldwide would be glad to do such work for a few dollars an hour, but immigration restrictions prevent this.
Third, changes in the immigration regime could prevent productive activities from being relocated to suboptimal places. In the past thirty years or so, millions of factory jobs have moved from the USA to China, although it would be more convenient to locate them in America, where the legal system is more developed, and they would be closer to the US market. Open borders would allow workers to move to jobs, rather than jobs to workers.
- Unskilled workers are valuable, too, not just immigrants with higher education
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg says that the USA needs to open its borders to “all the smartest and most talented,” because educated people stimulate innovation and positively influence the economy. It’s a strange misconception, though widespread, that only skilled specialists can benefit the economy. Unskilled workers also contribute.
I live in the Central Valley of California, one of the most agriculturally productive regions of the country. Most of the harvesting is done by Mexicans. Many of them are poorly educated and don’t speak English. Native-born Americans benefit from this. With no one to collect the harvest, agricultural land would lose value. In principle, farmers could hire native-born Americans, but then fruit would be more expensive and many farms would go out of business, while Mexicans would lose work that pays better than they could earn at home.
- Open borders will not erase international diversity
Concerning the influence of immigration policy on the cultures of different nations, it’s important to understand one thing. We should care about the welfare of people, not cultures or countries. It’s wrong to lock people into a country, if they want to emigrate and assimilate elsewhere.
But open borders would probably not deplete the world’s cultural diversity. I like to use Ireland as an example. Ireland was the homeland of many generations of emigrants, to the extent that today, many more people of Irish ancestry live outside Ireland, than in the country itself. This didn’t kill Irish culture, but on the contrary, helped it to spread. St. Patrick’s Day is now widely celebrated in America, and people all over the world love Irish music. Emigrants value the cultures they bring with them, and teach the foreigners among whom they settle, to love them as well.
- Open borders can address global inequality
Today the idea of open borders is very unpopular in the Western democracies. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. There was a time, when slavery was taken for granted, but now it’s been abolished, and everyone agrees that its abolition was right.
Europeans today attach great moral significance to having an egalitarian society, in which universal education, high taxes and high wages make the population relatively homogeneous. Because of these values, they don’t want to see poor immigrants on the streets [so they shut them out]. But how can economic equality within a country be regarded as a moral triumph, when there is far more inequality internationally is far greater?
Those who advocate open borders believe that helping the needy is a natural moral duty towards every person [not just co-nationals]. If you think about the economic, political, and other opportunities that open up before immigrants, the inconveniences to natives that would likely occur seem insignificant by comparison.
- Mass emigration would benefit poor countries
For the most part, poor countries would benefit from emigration. Emigrants send money home, and some return with useful skills and foreign contacts. They can be a positive influence on their relatives back home, inspiring them to become politically active and get educated. Emigration can also raise wages by making labor scarce.
I don’t think open borders would actually cause any country to be completely depopulated, though some of the world’s poorest countries might lose 80-90% of their populations. But if [for the sake of argument] there were a country where absolutely everyone emigrated, while one would hardly say that that country benefited from the change, it would be good for the people, who would find better lives somewhere else.
- Life needn’t get worse for the native population
Open borders would not lead to mass unemployment among natives, though it probably would lead to lower salaries for many. A fair comparison is furnished by the entry of women into the workforce since the 1960s. This probably did contribute to stagnation or decline in the wages of men, but not to mass unemployment, since labor markets are flexible, with a tendency to equilibrate. Something similar will happen with migration: no mass unemployment, but many wages will stagnate or fall. To offset this, it’s possible to charge surtaxes on migrants, and use the proceeds to compensate natives who suffer income losses due to competition from immigrants.
The dangers posed by immigration—for example, to Europeans, who especially fear Muslim immigration—are much exaggerated. That said, it would help if western Europeans were firmer in their principles. The cultural habits of Europeans were profoundly shaped by the influence of Christian and capitalist values, but today few of them have much belief in either. A kind of moral relativism prevails in Europe today, which makes it difficult for them to defend what is valuable in their heritage, to induce immigrants to assimilate to it.
I believe the problems of crime, violence, and ethnic hatred, which could arise under open borders, are also greatly exaggerated. In the USA, the crime rate has fallen sharply in the past twenty years, even as the number of immigrants has grown.
- Open borders and open citizenship are different things
American democracy has many faults, but it’s still pretty good as forms of government go. For two hundred years it has protected freedom of speech and religion, maintained civil peace, and to some extent, economic liberty. But if a few billion people migrated to the USA from all over the world and enjoyed the right to vote, the polity would be transformed beyond recognition. So it’s important to distinguish open borders from open citizenship.
To grant the right to vote to all comers is too risky. Under open borders as I envision it, hundreds of millions of people would live in the USA, under American laws, with their human and property rights respected, and with the right to work, but without rights of political representation. Some would be naturalized as citizens, and could vote and run for office, but naturalization would be a much slower and more restricted process.